Harvard is back in the news again, after the dismissal of Ronald Sullivan from his decanal position for joining the legal team defending Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein against charges of sexual misconduct (Sullivan has since withdrawn from the team, but says he will be available to provide legal advice).
This time, the subject is Harvard’s decision to rescind the admission of Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the February 2018 shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, to its incoming freshman class. The Parkland students gained national attention by demanding sweeping gun control legislation in the wake of the massacre of 17 of their classmates, taking their case to the Florida Legislature and the U.S. Congress.
Kashuv declared his solidarity with his fellow students, but also his staunch support of so-called gun rights under the Second Amendment. This made him a hero among gun right advocates, and earned him a meeting with Donald Trump. It also, along with outstanding SAT and GPA scores, got him admission to Harvard, along with two other Parkland student activists on the other side politically.
Now, anyone who agrees with the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to firearms calls his basic literacy skills into question. And any survivor of a mass shooting who holds such a view should probably have his head examined. But, hey, it’s a free country, and Kashuv wasn’t applying to Harvard’s Law School. Your freshman application shouldn’t depend on your political views.
Except that, in Kashuv’s case, those views likely did affect his admission. They “‘balanced’”the anti-gun stances of the other Parkland students accepted by Harvard, Jaclyn Corin and David Hogg, thereby protecting Harvard from any charge of liberal bias. In fact, Kashuv’s conservative views made him not only an ideal but almost inevitable candidate for admission. Harvard is the chief academic servicer of the political elite, and so it necessarily plays both sides of the street. For someone already with a foothold in the corridors of power, Kashuv was not only a suitable candidate but a prize catch.
So, your politics shouldn’t count in applying to college — and, at California State University Long Beach, where Kashuv’s application was rejected, perhaps they didn’t. But at Harvard, it seems that they do.
So the story might have rested. But some weeks ago, Harvard learned that Kashuv had joined other classmates in posting virulently racist and anti-Semitic comments on a Google study page. Kashuv’s included more than a dozen repetitions of the N–word, with the comment that “practice uhhhhh makes perfect.” Harvard, citing a policy that entitles it to revoke the admission of a student who “engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character,” told Kashuv that he wouldn’t be coming to Harvard after all.
Harvard’s policy is clear enough. It was invoked at least 10 times in 2017 against admitted students who had shared offensive memes among a private Facebook group. None of them, of course, had Kyle Kashuv’s 300,000 Twitter followers.
Kashuv’s response segued rapidly from contrition to challenge. He initially apologized to Harvard “unequivocally” for comments that were “egregious and callous.” Even this supposed mea culpa, however, was hardly candid. Wilfully and repeatedly posting the most offensive racial slur in the language is a good deal more than callous, i.e., insensitive or indifferent; it is an expression of hatred.
Having framed his apology as unconditional, Kashuv then proceeded to reel off a series of exculpations. His remarks were made at midnight after a long study session, with others making similar ones. The purpose was thus merely to let off collective steam by being “as extreme and shocking as possible,” rather than to express actual views. In fact, Kashuv could not actually recall what he had said, and had only been reminded of it when a video exposed him.
A further line of excuse was that Kashuv, while acknowledging “a bunch of anti-Semitic stuff” in the same postings, was Jewish himself: “That’s not who I am. My parents are Jewish. I’m Jewish. I go to synagogue every single week now — I’ve been going the past few weeks.”
This ploy has had its effect; Kashuv is now being characterized in some venues as the “Jewish student” denied admission to Harvard. But it is fair to wonder why, two years earlier, the selfsame chat room contributor would be offering such pleasantries as “f–k the Jews” and “Kill all the f—ing Jews” to his fellow classmates. Perhaps a psychiatrist could unravel this, but the whiff I get is of someone ready and willing to turn anything to his advantage, no matter how vile.
Finally, Kashuv managed to flip the subject, raising the racist past of Harvard itself. Its own faculty, he noted, had included “slave owners, segregationists, bigots and antisemites,” and therefore had its own sins to atone for. If, in the light of this, it were to suggest that an individual such as himself could not be forgiven a youthful peccadillo, then it would reveal itself as “inherently racist.” “But,” he added, “I don’t believe that.”
In other words, Kyle Kashuv was willing to give Harvard a choice: either to admit him, or to condemn itself forever.
What a wonderful opportunity for institutional redemption.
Harvard has made its share of mistakes, as I’ve pointed out from time to time. Dismissing Barry Sullivan from his deanship for defending an unpopular legal client was a very recent one. But Harvard made the right call on Kyle Kashuv. You could say that a display of juvenile one-upsmanship, however offensive, should not in and of itself cost one a college admission (except that sixteen is not juvenile, and the post revealed was not Kashuv’s only racist one). You could say that stepping figuratively over the bodies of your slain classmates to become a junior spokesman for the gun lobby was not an utterly cynical act of self-promotion but an expression of sincere principle. But you can’t tell the university you’re applying to to prove it isn’t racist by accepting your explanation of your own racism. You can’t conveniently wrap yourself in your Jewish heritage after saying that Jews should be exterminated.
The Jewish students at Harvard don’t need the embarrassment and offense of Kyle Kashuv in their midst. Black students at Harvard don’t need someone who makes their own education seem disvalued. Yes, Harvard has discriminated against both groups in the past. But that is all the more reason to spare them the insult Kashuv’s presence would bring.
As for Kashuv himself, he will certainly land on his feet. Anyone with his capacity for self-serving mendacity and his complete absence of principle will surely find a home in modern conservatism.